Transit or traffic - Page 4

There's a real chance to fix Muni -- but a simplistic downtown campaign for more parking and less government is trying to derail it
Illustration by Danny Hellman

But Belenson simply sees the need for 60,000 new parking spaces.

As he told the gathering, "If someone wants to build a parking lot and the market will support it, they should be able to."

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is generally allied with the downtown business community on most issues, but not Props. A and H, which SPUR says could be unmitigated disasters for San Francisco.

"SPUR is a pro-growth organization, and we want a healthy economy. And we think the only way to be pro-business and pro-growth in San Francisco is to be transit reliant instead of car reliant," SPUR executive director Gabriel Metcalf told me in an interview in his downtown office.

He agreed with Belenson that the free market will provide lots of new parking if it's allowed to do so, particularly because the regulatory restrictions on parking have artificially inflated its value. "But the negative externalities are very large," Metcalf said, employing the language of market economics.

In other words, the costs of all of that new parking won't be borne just by the developers and the drivers but by all of the people affected by climate change, air pollution, congested commerce, oil wars, slow public transit, and the myriad other hidden by-products of the car culture that we are just now starting to understand fully.

Yet Metcalf doesn't focus on that broad critique as much as on the simple reality that SPUR knows all too well: downtown San Francisco was designed for transit, not cars, to be the primary mode of transportation.

"Downtown San Francisco is one of the great planning success stories in America," Metcalf said. "But trips to downtown San Francisco can't use mostly single-occupant vehicles. We could never have had this level of employment or real estate values if we had relied on car-oriented modes for downtown."

Metcalf and other local urban planners tell stories of how San Francisco long ago broke with the country's dominant post–World War II development patterns, starting with citizen revolts against freeway plans in the 1950s and picking up stream with the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s, the arrival of BART downtown in 1973, the official declaration of a transit-first policy in the '80s, and the votes to dismantle the Central and Embarcadero freeways.

"We really led the way for how a modern dynamic city can grow in a way that is sustainable. And that decision has served us well for 30 years," Metcalf said.

Tom Radulovich, a longtime BART board member who serves as director of the nonprofit group Livable City, said San Franciscans now must choose whether they want to plan for growth like Copenhagen, Denmark, Paris, and Portland, Ore., or go with auto-dependent models, like Houston, Atlanta, and San Jose.

"Do we want transit or traffic? That's really the choice. We have made progress as a city over the last 30 years, particularly with regard to how downtown develops," Radulovich said. "Can downtown and the neighborhoods coexist? Yes, but we need to grow jobs in ways that don't increase traffic."

City officials acknowledge that some new parking may be needed.

"There may be places where it's OK to add parking in San Francisco, but we have to be smart about it. We have to make sure it's in places where it doesn't create a breakdown in the system. We have to make sure it's priced correctly, and we have to make sure it doesn't destroy Muni's ability to operate," Metcalf said. "The problem with Prop. H is it essentially decontrols parking everywhere. It prevents a smart approach to parking."

Yet the difficulty right now is in conveying such complexities against the "bureaucracy bad" argument against Prop. A and the "parking good" argument for Prop.